nytheatre.com review by Michael Mraz
June 15, 2012
In January, Gideon Productions premiered Mac Rogers’ Advance Man, the first part of his sci-fi Honeycomb Trilogy. Rogers has said his goal was to bring sci-fi to the stage in the form of a living room play: “A three-part alien occupation story, but about one family, and all to take place on the same set.”
So in Advance Man, we got a suspenseful, emotional family drama where the stakes were not just the survival of the family, but the survival of the human race, as Astronaut Bill Cooke, the patriarch of the family, was about to push a button to bring an insectoid alien race to earth.
In Blast Radius, 12 years later, we see the effects of the decision: an occupied planet and an enslaved human race. Leading the resistance? Ronnie Cooke, rebellious daughter of Bill Cooke. Her chief adversary, serving as the foremost human face siding with the aliens? Her sharply intelligent, introverted brother, Abbey Cooke. Ronnie wins the day in Blast Radius, convincing 51 members of their community to sacrifice themselves to bring down the Honeycomb, the alien hive.
Now, 8 years later with Sovereign—the conclusion of the trilogy—we refocus on the last two remaining members of the Cooke family: Abbey, now a war criminal, and Ronnie, now the battle-scarred Governor of Coral Settlement. The heart of Sovereign is the question: can these two ever find redemption in each other’s eyes, much less find redemption for themselves, after all of the horrors they have faced and committed? While, as in the other two installments of the trilogy, there are expansive themes that Rogers delves into, Sovereign’s strength is focusing on the fate of the trilogy’s central family.
Sovereign sets up a world where, though the humans are back in control of earth, the way that people lived before the invasion is now almost as alien as the bugs that inhabited the planet. As Ronnie and her government struggle desperately to return things to the way they were, they must also cope with the scars the liberation has left on them. Ronnie made a promise to Conor—the alien ambassador to the human race and Abbey’s lover—that she would protect Abbey and allow the Honeycomb to leave the planet peacefully after they won. She seems to have only kept one of these, as Abbey is alive, but missing somewhere, while the bugs have been mostly swept off the planet and the transitional people—“skins,” as they’re called, with a bug consciousness in a human body—are all put in the equivalent of concentration camps. The 51 who had been sacrificed to destroy the Honeycomb hive at Coral Settlement have now become hundreds, all convinced to march to their deaths by Ronnie to bring down hives around the world.
Abbey has been discovered with a “skin” named Claret (also his new lover) nearby, only to reveal that the Honeycomb has one last chance at survival. Now, while all of Ronnie’s past pains are brought to the forefront as she has to decide whether to execute her brother on a charge of attempted genocide, she must face the same dark question herself: should she snuff out the bugs’ last hope at existence, or fulfill her promise and allow them to thrive and leave?
Rogers tackles a very profound question here; one that, as Abbey points out, has recurred throughout human history. Where exactly is the line? Abbey planned attempted genocide with the hive to assimilate all humankind and he is a traitor. With one final chance for the survival of the hive now, Ronnie likely wants to finish of the bugs, and will be hailed as a hero by her people. She would succeed at genocide and be lauded, because history favors the victors, but at what ethical cost? Claret, Abbey’s skin companion, says as much later about the human memory, frightened by the loss of the perfect hive memory: “We’ll remember things wrong, we’ll disagree over details, we’ll change things to make ourselves sound better.” It’s what it is to be human.
But while Rogers touches on these big issues, he succeeds most at what he originally set out to do, a family drama with a backdrop of alien invasion. He has created such rich, complicated characters, in Ronnie and Abbey, that have caused each other so much pain and suffering that it seems hopeless. Hanna Cheek creates a hardened, pained Ronnie who, just below her gruff exterior, is being torn apart by everything she has done: all of her personal loss, all of the people she has sent to their death. She gives us a woman who perhaps doesn’t know if she has made the right decisions, but can only still survive by believing in them fully. She says at one point there are “two kinds of people in the world: the ones who bitch about what was decided, and the ones who actually decide!” and she is the latter. Cheek is heartbreaking as the woman who has had to be strong for everyone and has never had the time to mourn her losses. On the other hand, Stephen Heskett’s Abbey is a man now. He’s lost some of the petulance he had in the previous two plays. He still speaks as the moral voice of the play, but Heskett shows us that he’s lost some of his belief in that. In his desire to become one of the hive, he realizes there are things he missed out on just being human. The best moments between the two are when they fight through the pain to remember some common ground that they once had, before everything became so complicated. In those moments, you almost believe that they may find a way to love each other again, to forgive, only to have it all come crashing down because of some old wound.
Erin Jerozal’s Claret is beautifully molded, an alien consciousness that is still loyal to her people, but comes across remarkably like a human child, naïve and unjaded. Matt Golden gives a nice turn as Zander, the Manager of the settlement who walks the line of always holding to strict procedure, while fighting down his fierce emotion and disdain for the Honeycomb and Abbey. Sara Thigpen as Fee—Ronnie's closest friend and advisor, who lost her lover as a sacrifice to the the Honeycomb and all of her babies largely due to lack of human medicine post-invasion—slowly, silently burns throughout the play until she just can’t hold in the pain and disappointment in the cards she has been dealt. And a true star of the trilogy is Sandy Yaklin’s set, which has gone through transformation after transformation but still holds the original spirit and memories of the Cooke Household.
While I found that Sovereign does not quite have the same fullness to its supporting characters as Blast Radius(and to a slightly lesser degree Advance Man), it brings to a close the terrible, beautiful story of the Cooke family. Rogers succeeds in his goal: a low-tech science fiction epic—a family drama all on one set—and he has delivered admirably throughout. The endgame for Ronnie and Abbie, the tragic characters of the saga, is heart-wrenchingly sad, touching, and bittersweet. While I feel Sovereign could stand alone, it relies on the pathos and performances of the previous installments much more than the others did, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The accomplishment of the world Rogers and Gideon have built is the entirety of the world and the characters they created throughout the three plays: all of the nuance, all of the humanity.